I met Uncle Gerhard and Tita Ched for the first time when I was eight years old. It was 1984, and my parents had just moved us to New York City. Gerhard and Ched, who were my great-uncle and great-aunt, lived in Queens, in a quiet neighborhood called Briarwood.
For our regular Sunday afternoon visits, we always came in through the side door, crowding up a short flight of narrow stairs to kiss Gerhard and Ched hello and accept whatever snarky comment they had to make about our appearance or perceived personality flaws before the five of us kids could hide downstairs before lunch.
Downstairs there was a huge basement, wood-paneled and containing a complete apartment with its own kitchen and bath. A rowing machine sat in the middle of the basement, and one of us would row in time to the songs that another of us would peck out on an upright piano. A small pantry outfitted with canned vegetables and ancient bottles of Coca-Cola from the 1970’s.
I like going to their house because I could be left almost alone with one of my uncle’s massive coffee table books, full of places I wanted to see. Places that he and my Aunt visited in the course of their decades-long marriage. Whenever they’d come back from a trip, they’d have us all over for lunch and a slideshow of the pictures my uncle would take. A retired photographer for the Associated Press, Gerhard would take pictures of waterfalls in South America, colorful buildings in Scandinavia, the sky over a square somewhere in Poland or China.
The pictures from trips to Eastern and Northern Europe would be invariably include hordes of anonymous pink-cheeked youth forever smiling over ice cream cones or stopping on their bicycles to give directions to the nearest church. These teenagers were always taller, smarter, and nicer to their elders than we kids would ever be to ours.
Those teenagers were jerks. My aunt and uncle were jerks, I thought. Lecturing us about our bad attitudes and terrible posture over lunch, but hugging us tight and whispering in our ears that they loved us when they’d send us home with all of the leftovers and sometimes a $20 bill each, folded and pressed into our hands, on holidays. They’d complain about kids in the neighborhood being too rowdy on the sidewalk in front of their house, but doted on their neighbor Muriel and the cats they kept over the years.
We called Uncle Gerhard’s father Poppa. I’m sure he had a real name like Martin or George but I couldn’t imagine calling this perpetually smiling man with white hair and pink cheeks anything but Poppa. He may have been Gerhard’s dad but he was our Poppa. He was soft when Gerard was a little hard, funny when Gerhard was a little grim. In summer months Poppa lived in the yard, wearing black socks with his shorts and sandals, happy in all of the pictures we took of him. Poppa loved us, and we loved him. I couldn’t understand how this happy old man could have produced my curmudgeonly uncle whose two favorite hobbies appeared to be smoking a pipe full of tobacco from Nat Sherman and grousing at us.
Before Gerhard died last week at the age of 89, my brother Patrick had been spending more time with him, visiting him, weekly when he could. Gerhard was in and out of a nursing home in his neighborhood, susceptible to the odd flu or infection that he insisted he could cure himself if we would all just leave him alone already. My younger sister would look after him almost daily but even she wasn’t skilled enough to keep him out of the nursing home forever.
Patrick would ask him about his childhood in the Bronx, his youth spent in Germany making what he thought were promotional tourist films but ended up becoming Nazi propaganda. An American, he could avoid being made to join the Nazi youth police but could’t stay out of German jail before getting sent back to America before the war. He met a president and famous jazzmen. Most importantly he met my aunt who, being unmarried, in her thirties and living in New York City on her own, was a bit scandalous. He was unmarried himself and not immune to her charms when she marched herself over to him at a resort upstate and make him take a picture of her and her friends. They were married for over forty years.
I wish Tita Ched was still here so she could tell me about being a swinging single Filipino lady in 1960’s New York City. I needed somebody not my mother (no disrespect) to show me how to be, how to do. Thirty-something Tita Ched was my single lady jam. She literally had no fucks to give, and neither did my uncle. I wish Uncle Gerhard was still around so he could roll my eyes when I ask him what was it about Tita Ched that he loved first, that he loved most, and that he loved least. When I think of most of the boys I’ve had crushes on, and continue to brood upon, they all possess qualities that Gerhard had. In fact, the last big crush of my college years was the spitting image of him.
I like to think that at the end of his life Gerhard wasn’t neglecting his health so much as prioritizing it behind the possibility that he might see her again in another life. Why hang on for another day, another week, another year, wheezing in a nursing home when he, not entirely religious but respectful of her faith, might see her again? I wish I’d gotten to see him one more time so I could hold his hand, taking care that his pipe was nearby, and make him tell me more about their cranky, long-lasting love.